Curator’s Note: This thoughtful post by vefanyar is directed to a fan fiction writing and reading audience within a specific fandom; yet, it speaks (and inserts itself in) to ongoing discussions about the arguable universality of m/m slash and comparative dearth of f/f slash in English-language fan fiction communities.
This post has been a while in the making, and as per usual several things coincided – working on a female-centric fic, nattering about female characters with friends, a ‘fannish wishlist’ prompt that reminded me how much I want there to be more diversity in Tolkien fic. And, as much as I love playing in ‘my’ niche of the fandom, encouraging and producing the things I like to read and write, lately I’ve been feeling a little alienated with my interest in female characters and femslash. It’s been starting to feel a little like crumbs off the table, especially while other genres are having a party.
Mostly it’s made me wonder about the disparity between female-centric and femslash fic and their male counterparts, and how to approach it.
Dawn Felagund’s recent survey for her talk about Transformative Works as a Means to Develop Critical Perspectives in the Tolkien Fan Community yielded the impressive number of 91% female participants in the Tolkien fanfiction fandom across social media platforms and fic archives, and CentrumLumina’s pan-fandom AO3 census strongly implies that a majority of ficcers are not heterosexual. (Inhowfar these surveys overlap I can’t say, but I would be surprised to find the Tolkien fandom as an outlier.)
And yet, contrary to expectations that female fans (queer or not) might want to produce and read material that also lets them reflect themselves in stories, it is guyslash that most fans participating in Dawn’s survey are enthusiastic or highly enthusiastic about both in writing (48% of respondents) and reading (73% of respondents), as per her survey results. Femslash is much rarer and less well-received; numbers on AO3 mirror this, too. Currently 874 fics out of 3137 works total in the Silmarillion section of AO3 are M/M, only 203 are F/F, and when it comes to the 1768 genfic stories, AO3 lists only two female characters (Galadriel and Aredhel) at 281 fics combined in its top ten.
Before this preamble starts appearing like a tirade against guyslash – which it is not at all supposed to be – full disclosure: I don’t mind guyslash and male-centric fic. They’re not my favourite-ever genres, but I enjoy them, have written both and will probably write them in the future. I am not interested in pointing fingers or telling anybody to feel bad for their writing and reading habits. I am not writing this ramble in order to try and devalue guyslash or male characters. I am not telling anyone to make less of it. After all, these stories are still primarily written by and for women – and we deserve a space to tell the stories we want to tell. I am glad fandom is offering that space, and glad that the anti-guyslash sentiment of the early Tolkien fandom has diminished so much as to be almost inconsequential (although of course the immense popularity of guyslash also allows to raise critical questions about the reasons behind its prevalence).
So. I’m neither asking nor expecting anybody to share my exact sentiments, but maybe talking about this will at least help me get it off my chest. Or maybe it’ll start a conversation. Although sometimes, instead of being the change I want to see and making this into an issue of fandom politics, I just want to find a fic to squee my head off over without needing to wade through five archive pages full of male characters and guyslash for something I haven’t written myself. Hyperbole alert, but only slightly.
What I want to say is this: Stories outside the fannish mainstream should be recognized as having just as much value as the more popular genres.
Because as Saathi1013 aptly points out in one of her meta posts, value is not a finite resource. Increasing the value or number of one thing doesn’t automatically mean a decrease in value for others, although if it happened to decrease uniformity a little in favour of genres that tend to fall by the wayside, you wouldn’t find me complaining.
Maybe I really am in the wrong fandom, because there appears to be a correlation between complex, strongly-written female characters and the number of fics about them, as well as an increase in femslash when text or subtext make female characters “shippable”. Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, Sleepy Hollow, Elementary, The 100, Carmilla and Legend of Korra all come to mind among the shows I’ve recently been watching and occasionally read fanfic in where this is the case on AO3 and tumblr.
I am aware and don’t want to imply that tumblr and AO3 the only parts of fandom or that they are in any way indicative of behaviour in other social networks and on other archive sites. But they’re what my post is geared at. They are hubs of multifandom activity, and these days they are probably the central place of exposure to fannish trends and ropes the same way BBs, Y!Groups and Livejournal were when I first dipped my toes into fandom – and to find that the strongest trend in fandom culture is the near-exclusive glorification of, and reward for, white male characters and fanworks dealing with them, that bias frankly feels disheartening.
Because let’s not pretend it isn’t a bias that stems from our media landscape where women viewers are taught, even required, to empathize with the male character(s) in order to not be relegated out of the heroic leading role and onto the sidelines, and where the relationships between men are afforded more value and complexity than those involving women. It’s not a surprise to find that reflected in fandom landscape. At the very least it’s an acquired way of approaching, consuming and re-working texts.
It also is one of the of the reasons I like the fannish term of goggles (as in slash goggles). It doesn’t need a lot of effort to turn that habit into something that can be put on or taken off, instead of a way of seeing only the male characters that’s permanently glued to the face (at least I dearly hope it’s not). I guess I’m just wishing that more people (in general, but specifically in the Tolkien fandom) would occasionally take off the male-focused goggles, or at least reserve one lense for the female characters and their relationships.
I’m also aware that, even considering the media bias, there isn’t a single, or even a simple reason for the lack of femslash or female-centric fic, and its recognition. CentrumLumina’s femslash flowchart does a pretty good job of outlining (some) relations between different contributing factors and (some of) the complexity of the problem; I imagine it would look much the same for the lack of general female-centric fic without the romance factor.
The flowchart lists a lack of female characters in the source material as one of the factors, and I’d be lying if I didn’t think that was one of the major problems with Tolkien, both in canon and in fanworks. It comes supported, of course, by Tolkien’s propensity to not just seriously underwrite female presence (only 18% of Middle-earth’s known population are female, and there is a staggering amount of textual ghosts), but to background or fridge the female characters who do exist, in particular when they have “served their purpose” i.e. the men in their lives are dead or gone, or, as Éowyn puts it: All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.
Glóredhel, Rían, Niënor, Finduilas, Aredhel, Melian and Arwen are just a few examples of that pattern off the top of my head. Others who live, like Nellas, are often forgotten, left behind, or never appear in a significant, active role in the texts at all. Female characters in positions of power get a bad rep and many questionable decisions or unsympathetic traits to their name, as proved by Erendis and the Númenorean Queens, Uinen, Queen Berúthiel, maybe even Haleth making errors of judgment in constraining her people to go through Nan Dungortheb against need. (Please note I am not objecting to flawed female characters, but to the narrative treatment that paints female characters in power as less capable or deserving).
Others still – among them eminent heroines like Lúthien – like the Valier, and Galadriel are quasi-religious icons who were placed on such high pedestals that it becomes hard to recognize them as characters at all.
There are a few female characters who escape those fates, but on the whole none of this is news. And I understand how textual treatment of that kind may destroy the interest and incentive to write about Tolkien’s female characters – I’ve been frustrated with it more often than I’d like to admit even as much as I love most of Tolkien’s women, and even when I wanted to write about these women. It’s even more true for femslash. When – on the surface, at least – there is barely anything to work with for any given female character, and barely any other female characters for her to form meaningful interactions and connections with, the prospect of actually writing about them sometimes sounds like the opposite of fun.
It certainly makes it easy to yield to the path of least resistance – to canon and to habits and the underlying assumption that the default of anything is male – in terms of creating fanworks, especially when Hot Guy A and Hot Guy B hopping into bed together is bound to receive interest and accolades from other fans, i.e. kudos, likes, reviews and reblogs. It also often has a great deal of fanon to back it up, and as such is a familiar part of the fannish landscape already. I’m not saying the existence and prevalence of male-centric and guyslash fanworks doesn’t make sense on many levels.
But it bears keeping in mind that most Silmarillion characters, even the more narratively important ones, tend to be strongly archetypal. I’ve always found that Oshun’s and others’ character biographies on the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild or the HASA Research Library (closing in the near future) attest to the effort it takes to compile and make sense of canon, especially when working with the extended and often contradictory material of the History of Middle-earth.
And fandom – in light of the above, especially the Tolkien fandom, owing to the general remote tone of the Silmarillion and associated works – is by nature not completely affirmative, it is transformative. It finagles out preferred versions and details, goes to immense lengths to track down differences and similarities, determines unclear parentages, reworks the source material to add dimension to characters, fills in gaps and missing scenes, devises plots, turns the camera on events and moments that happen off screen and goes up-close and personal with the heroes to humanize them and make them into people rather than distant, larger-than-life figures. It criticizes, examines bias, asks what-if, transplants characters and events into different settings, foregrounds minor characters, builds relationships and romances between characters that may never even interact in canon… and that’s hardly everything.
In short, critical perspectives are a vital part of fandom and fannish activity.
All of them take effort that writers are perfectly happy to expend. Why, then, does fannish transformativity appear to be happy to seize characters like a random background elf from the Council of Elrond’s movie version and boost him into fandom fame, including backstories, several different names (Figwit, Melpomaen, Lindir), fics galore, and sustain momentum enough to have actor Brett McKenzie return in his role in the first Hobbit movie, but stop short at female characters and femslash? Even taking into account the lack of appeal of female stories in Tolkien, why does fandom not make use of the tools at its disposal to transform an unappealing story into an appealing one, whether that is via fix-it fics, AUs, or even something as commonplace in fanfiction as a POV change to try and make sense of a female character’s actions, give her a voice to offer commentary and let her be the heroine of her own story? Why does it neither acknowledge nor use the potential for complexity that Tolkien’s female characters possess?
In fact, the often unhelpful narrative treatment of female characters and the relatively blank space that surrounds them can easily be viewed as a blessing in disguise: both provide fantastic material for a transformative effort and artistic license, rather than having to squeeze a character or plot into the nooks and crannies of existing text. Inferring from the social and cultural background of female characters as well as examining contradictions or missing information in their canon treatment can make for compelling questions and stories with female characters at their heart and center. I like to think that interrogating a text from this perspective and writing accordingly will actually make a story strongly connected to the Legendarium, even affirmative of it if the writer so desires, but without actively perpetuating Tolkien’s reductive view of female characters or being confined to the traditional roles the texts often present. Different possible answers to the same questions that arise from female characters’ stories also reduce the likelihood of arriving at precisely the same conclusion as another writer who got there first. Fanon is much less ubiquitous than with more famous male characters, making it much easier to write outside the fannish box.
In short, there is potential for fascinating stories from the underwritten viewpoints of female leaders, queens, common people, warriors, wise-women, even the handful of female villains of Middle-earth. Sometimes there even is subtext, or at least plot, that would lend itself quite readily to femslash.
Why did Haleth lead her people through Nan Dungortheb and was still considered an honoured and beloved leader? Why did she never marry? Why did Aerin take the risk of abuse from Brodda to aid Morwen and Niënor in occupied Dor-lómin? Did Melian ever ask Nellas to look after Túrin’s sister, too? What was it like for Andreth to study under Adanel? What happened between Eärwen and Anairë when the latter refused to accompany her family into Exile for Eärwen’s sake? What is Thuringwethil’s story, and where did Queen Berúthiel come to live after her banishment? What exactly did Míriel mean when she said “Indis hath my love”? Did Lalwen fight in any of the Battles of Beleriand? What allowed Tar-Míriel to persist in her beliefs when she was married to one of the biggest enemies of the Faithful and lived in close proximity to Sauron? Or do you prefer the other version where she did marry him out of love and free will? Where and who are all the invisible female characters who must have existed around them?
Granted, this approach doesn’t fix everything wrong with the way canon treats female characters, especially since it fails to impact canon directly, but less outright rejection might at the very least bring about something of a change in fandom climate – and personally speaking, it doesn’t sound like more effort to me than making Ecthelion and Glorfindel into friends or lovers on the basis of a handful of textual parallels (did you know that they never even exchange a single word in canon?), or entertaining and justifying even relatively taboo topics in order to write, for example, the epic romance of Fingolfin and Fëanor. Even when writing primarily male characters or guyslash, is it so hard to stick in a handful of female supporting cast every now and then? If you write Finrod in Aman, where are Indis, Eärwen, Galadriel and Amarië? If you write Manwë, where are Varda and Ilmarë? If you write Túrin, where are Lalaith, Morwen, Melian, Nellas, Finduilas and Niënor? Where and who are all the invisible female characters who must have existed around them?
I know there are plenty of extratextual reasons for the lack of female characters and femslash their recognition in fandom other than just shouting “internalized misogyny” (which exists, no doubt, but it’s hardly the end-all of arguments); rather I actually find many of them very understandable. The continued barrage of sexism and misogyny, casual or not, pretty much everywhere and all the time, and hence the desire to write the role of someone in power in an escapist activity like fanfiction is probably the one I’ve come across most often… but even then, what about transformativity? Many guyslash fics opt for in-world acceptance of relationships regardless of canonicity and simply present them as fact – is it so impossible to entertain the notion of a female character in power and charge of her own story rather than in a subservient role, be that in general or in a relationship? I don’t think so.
The same, or at least very similar, approaches can be taken for other marginalized groups. Intersectionality is an important aspect of criticism and transformativity, so what about characters of colour? Tolkien in fact wrote some who don’t factor into the faceless mass of dehumanized cannon-fodder bad guys, or at least can be interpreted to not be white. Female characters of colour? Femslash featuring female characters of colour?
Other unwritten or underwritten groups, tropes, more diverse viewpoints? Create, promote, encourage, review, be fannish, and people will start coming around to your ideas. You are wanted, and you are welcome. In fact I’d say you are pretty sorely missed.
As Tolkien put it in his poem Mythopoeia: Yes! Wish-fulfilment dreams we spin to cheat / our timid hearts and ugly fact defeat!
Can we make that happen?
“On Female Characters and Femslash in the Silmarillion Fandom,” ©vefanyar, originally posted 20 January, 2015